Casinosaurus Rex

By Gambling Insider
Regular Gambling Insider contributor Paul Sculpher assesses what would happen if a UK casino today were to be run the same way as in 1994

Recently I was trawling through the murk of LinkedIn, as recruitment people are wont to do, when I came across an actual casino dinosaur. Now I think we all cling onto elements of our early careers as being the right way to do things, but this was a genuine “side bets are bad, open door is bad, technology is bad, all management since the 1990’s are useless number crunchers” Casinosaurus Rex individual. It got me to thinking – what if you ran a UK casino right now, today, in the same way as you’d have run one in the last year the old C. Rex appeared to think they were “properly” run, circa 1994? What would happen?

There are, to say the least, a few problems. I think the first one is pure commercials. I don’t think anyone would disagree that a good proportion of casino trade back in the 1990’s was from, shall we say, dubious sources. I was only a dealer (m’lud!) so I can say without fear of prosecution that I was 99% sure some of the bigger punters in the casino I trained in were criminals of some sort.

The idea of running source of funds checks for AML purposes in our 1994 casino, plonked into 2021, would be trouble. Not only would you never see the genuinely suspect players again, you would of course lose a good swathe of your non-criminal players, due to unwillingness to provide the information, laziness or fear of the taxman.

So you’ve sliced out a good lump of your better players. That’s not the end of it, though, because you’re really going to struggle to replace them. You’re still in 24-hour rule territory, you see, so anyone who wants to visit has to have signed up 24 hours in advance. That kills the possibility of impulse visits unless you’ve a member in your party who can sign in their guests – although impulse visits aren’t likely unless people are walking right past, as you can’t advertise, not even a website. Back then all you could offer was prescribed sized classified adverts for the restaurant.

The catering efforts are an interesting question. Casino catering in the UK has been downgraded over the years, from A La Carte menus cooked by serious chefs, to something in some cases not far north of a Wetherspoons menu. That’s not universally the case, but both the largest two chains of casinos have broadly standardized their menus and you won’t find too many kitchen workers paid a long way above minimum wage. I’m somewhat split on this issue – for smaller sites, I think you just need to have a food offer as fuel for gamers, but there’s still a sliver of market for customers who both want fine food and will game to any extent. One thing’s for sure, you’re not going to make significant profit from your upscale food offer, so it had better lead to crossover income.

Your other issue is the bar experience. A swanky bar is a key part of the process of turning people from non visitors to occasional visitors, to people who like to have a modest punt once they’re comfortable. But– oh no – 1994 rules mean you can’t have alcohol on the gaming floor (as anyone who worked as a shift manager around this period will have stated at least 100 times every Saturday night). Those of us working in casinos back then will also remember they weren’t the most welcoming of places, with thick smoke (not anymore!), low ceilings and usually a tiny bar, purely as a service.

The 1994 casino is a bit limited in terms of gaming options, as well. Just the two slots, which if we’re being honest were largely run back then as a mysterious box that was a pain in the backside to empty and count. No electronic roulette – the Casinosaurus doubtless does not approve anyway – so really it’s just tables. You’d just about got the option to offer Casino Stud Poker back then (and “Super Pan 9”– great) by 1994. Proper side bets were a gleam in someone’s eye.

Side bets are in fact a divisive issue, and I can see the argument for non-progressive bets both ways. Anyone can point to the revenue generated by them, but I don’t think many have assessed the impact of both the frustration caused by a slower game, and danger of rapid bankroll exhaustion. One thing’s for certain in my mind, though, progressive side bets are a must. They add a different dimension to casino gambling, where you can genuinely turn a £100 ($135.38) buy-in into life-changing money in one shot.  Without them there’s an erosion of the casino experience for some people.

The challenges don’t stop there, mind. You can’t have debit cards, just three cheques per person, per day, backed up by a “Cheque Guarantee Card” (ask your parents, kids) unless you set up a complicated facility. ATMs weren’t permitted, and by all means stick your smiling friendly faced receptionist out there on reception, but almost nobody had door security – I’m sure it’ll be okay. That’ll do nicely on a lively Friday night… And one more thing – you’ll be needing to close at 4am, and 2am on a Saturday night, just when it’s getting fun.

Even staffing was a ton easier back then, with far superior options for the skilled dealer abroad, when being a UK licensed casino professional meant something overseas. If you operate withthe same bloated 1994 rota and super low gaming minimums to match, you’re just not going to make enough money, with staff far more expensive overall today. Oh and no tips to supplement the salary. In fact running a 2021 casino on a 1994 roster, with tipless wages adjusted to the point where you could actually get enough staff, bankrupts you before you’ve been trading a month.

You’d need to adopt the old policy of banning fraternisation with customers, too – back then as a dealer you could get fired for being in a photo with a member of your casino. That works a lot better when you have a very small number of respectable players (respectable in terms of spend level, not always in terms of respectable individuals) than when you’re trying to bring new trade through the doors.

In short, if you tried to operate the same way today as you did in 1994, you’d be dead in the water. You can’t afford the staff you’d have had back then, your ancillary income is devastated, and a lump of your primary income is a victim of modern AML regulations. Online gaming soaks up some portion of your core market– the sofa can be more tempting as a gambling location than having to get up and put actual clothes on.

Oh, and if you thought you were going to turn a blind eye to problem gambling issues, which operators might have done back then to a small extent (and there weren’t anything like the same regulations anyway), the combination of the National Self Exclusion Scheme and stringent penalties for not doing the right thing will see you in big trouble.

It’s easy to remember the golden days and for our Jurassic joker to pooh-pooh the efforts of managers since then, but the truth is the market and the operating environment has changed. In a dynamic world, adapting to change is key, and bleating that everything’s worse than it was when Casinosaurus roamed the pit just evokes thoughts of oncoming asteroids and imminent fossilisation. There is more than one way to both skin a cat and run a casino – not necessarily complementary skills – but harking back to 27 years ago doesn’t form part of any method with a chance of success.